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Adversity in the workplace

May 1998 | by Rod Badams

For most Christians of working age, the working world is familiar territory. Either full-time or part-time, they work in the offices, factories, research centres, hospitals, schools, libraries or supermarkets of what is often called the ‘secular’ world. A small number of Christians are employed in a ‘Christian’ environment — a Bible college or the offices of a Christian organization, for example. But most are facing the challenges of working alongside people who live as though life were complete without God, and under managements that are unlikely to refer to the Bible when formulating company policy!

The working world today

In fact, the working world of the UK is now more ‘secular’ in its philosophy, atmosphere, style, values, expectations and policies, than at any time in the last 200 years. In place of the traditional British company, perhaps founded by one of the Quaker families or other dissenting groups in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, there has arisen the modern multi-national, whose policies and attitudes are not derived from any one particular culture. In line with the spirit of the age, companies have become more pragmatic and flexible, less committed to fixed perceptions or standards, and much less paternalistic in character.

In the old days there was often something of a Christian flavour to many workplaces — an influence for godliness and moral rectitude. This came down to the workforce from God-fearing founders, and was implicit in the principles upon which they established their companies. But now the only real ‘light’ is from individual Christians, whether they are in high or low positions in the hierarchy. The general departure from Christian assumptions increases the likelihood of conflict between the values and principles held by individual believers, and the ethos and policies operating within a workplace.

The challenge of living a faithful, godly life is immense, but there is nothing new about it. Similar experiences were faced by Joseph, Moses, Nehemiah and Daniel in Old Testament times. Living a life of Christian character in the context of a non-Christian, and possibly hostile, environment is part of our witness. The Lord will provide us with the guidance, wisdom, perseverance and other resources which we will need. There is, in fact, very little personal hostility to Christians merely because they are Christians. Their problems at work generally arise from a combination of related factors and circumstances. Here are some of the main ones.

Marginalization

The first factor is the increasing sidelining of Christians, the Christian faith and Christian principles in the current generation. Since more than ninety per cent of people live as though life were complete without God, the Christian is an eccentric figure, at least at first. The average work colleague may never have met an evangelical Christian before; meeting one at work comes as a great surprise. They may react as did the Athenians, who said to the apostle Paul: ‘You are bringing strange things to our ears.’ Among a group of colleagues, this can lead to mockery and ridicule of the Christian. But if he holds his ground and does not react in kind, this attitude will quickly pass, and he will earn a respect which will be the strength of his continuing witness.

The search for success

Secondly, Christians can become casualties of the quest by companies for success and competitive advantage. Although the reasons for this are not linked directly with their faith, Christians are not immune from the snakes and ladders of commercial experience. In recent months two Christian company directors have been ousted by their boards or been forced to resign. One lost his job as a result of poor results, the other following procedural irregularities by other members of staff for whom he felt responsible.

Another Christian, employed in a financial services company, has been under investigation, along with colleagues, by one of the regulators which oversees commercial activity in the financial world. This case does not involve personal malpractice by the Christian. The issue is, rather, the extent to which he failed to notice the malpractice of others, or because he knew, and failed to ‘blow the whistle’ on his colleagues.

Christians cannot expect to be treated more leniently than others when their performance is called into question. But it is easy for them to feel that they have let the Lord down, even when their difficulties may have arisen through the decisions or actions of others. Some Christian high-fliers in the City — in banking or accountancy, for instance — are under pressure to work fourteen-hour days, simply because this is the normal expectation of some managements. This pressure puts a heavy burden on a Christian breadwinner trying to do justice to family and church responsibilities as well as work commitments.

Social attitudes

Thirdly, the social attitudes of colleagues may be very different from those of the Christian. For Christians who are by nature gregarious and warm-hearted people, or who do not have a great deal of natural confidence, social separation from colleagues can be an immense trial. It is not just a case of not joining the lottery syndicate, or of declining the lunch-time drink. It can also be wearying to be constantly challenged to comment on the lifestyles of others. Some people are keen to drive Christians into corners, and prove them judgemental and narrow. In a society where freedom of choice and action is the overriding virtue, and a wide raft of attitudes has become acceptable, this problem will increase.

Tensions

Finally, differences of view can cause tensions between people at work. Most Christians want, and enjoy, good relationships with their non-Christian colleagues. But the highly-pressurized character of contemporary working life has led to increased strain upon colleague relationships. People are busy, have large workloads, and are expected to produce good work, on time without fail. When something has not gone according to plan, it can put relationships under stress, and lead to irrational thinking and exaggeration on all sides. The Christian can imagine that he is being persecuted for being a Christian, whereas the cause lies only in the circumstances.

However, the perception of persecution sometimes arises precisely because there are times when people criticize Christians for being such. Occasions when they bring into their work-related criticism the fact that their colleague is a Christian, when that is in no way relevant to the issue, and ought not to have been mentioned in the same context.

What should we do?

The kind of conflicts outlined above leave the believer with crucial decisions to make. What does a Christian do when the company decides to adopt a continental pattern of working hours, using Sunday as a normal working day on a rota basis? There is not yet a law in the UK giving anyone the right not to work on a Sunday. If a shift pattern of four days on, four days off, is implemented, for example, those involved would be working half the Sundays in the year. Would a believer’s conscience allow this, if their work is of a non-essential nature like making biscuits or printing holiday brochures? If they felt a strong conscientious objection, how should they express it?

Most Christians who have been in this position have sought to persuade the management to agree special working hours which do not involve Sundays. And many managements have agreed to this. Where Christians have been dismissed for refusing Sunday work, cases have gone to industrial tribunals. This is a long process and very stressful for the person affected. The stress is compounded by the fact that the Christian has not sought the circumstances which caused the problem. Management has often ‘moved the goal posts’ by wanting to change existing contracts of employment.

Other questions arise. What does a Christian do when his boss tells him to alter dates on food packets? Or when a company routinely tells its suppliers that they have not delivered the full order, in the hope of settling the invoice at less than the full amount? Christians will of course stand up against these practices, and refuse to be part of them. But, even when the issues are so clear, it would be wrong to imagine that the Christian is unaffected by such matters. They can cause anxiety, sleepless nights, and even ill health. But the decisive stand of a Christian can lead to more honest practices being adopted, to everyone’s good.

Being in a small minority is never an enjoyable experience, and there are frequently moments when a faithful Christian feels isolated and unsupported. Christians caught up in complex and stressful circumstances in the workplace will need fellowship support. They will need prayer, personal encouragement and a large measure of understanding from their fellow-Christians.

Comfort from the Scriptures

At times of tension, perplexity or opposition at work, the Scriptures are a great comfort. The way of integrity in the working world is spelt out in the Scriptures. The believer will be strengthened by such verses as, ‘Let your communication be yea, yea, nay, nay’ (Matthew 5:37), and, ‘Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord’ (Colossians 3:23), and again, ‘Owe no man anything’ (Romans 13:8).

Christians must avoid getting a persecution complex. But if hostile attitudes do emerge against us, we can remember that Jesus said, ‘Pray for them which despitefully use you’ (Matthew 5:44). To take such positive action will give us a new perspective on the matter. If blessing can come as a result of outright persecution, as suggested by Matthew 5:10-12, then it can also come through the lesser afflictions which arise from our interaction with an ungodly, secular world.

If Christians are the light of that world, then without them it is in utter darkness. We can therefore go off to work with an assurance that we are sent by God to make a difference. Furthermore, we have the assurance that all the Lord’s care, resources and providence will combine to help us exercise an effective witness and influence, beyond our imagining